Child custody decisions are usually made at the time of an initial divorce filing with the intention of providing for the stability and best interests of minor children. But even the best agreements rarely work for every stage of a child’s life. School, activities, work schedules, living arrangements – all of these things and more will change as children grow and their needs evolve. When do you know if it is time to modify your existing child custody order, and what steps should you take to make the transition as smooth as possible? We talk to family law attorneys Lisa J. Gill and Leigh Taylor White with the law firm of Thomas, White & Gill to get their insight and recommendations.
The main reason a parent wants to change an existing order is that it no longer fits the needs of the child, due to a substantial and permanent change in circumstances. If one parent feels the current schedule is unworkable due to material changes – and even when both parents agree that changes are necessary – they will have to show the court that a changed custody order is in the best interests of the child or children. “The court will look to see if there are changed circumstances between the parents that materially impact the child’s well-being, or in the case of parental relocation, whether the relocation makes the prior schedule unworkable to best meet the child’s needs,” says Lisa.
When seeking to modify an existing child custody order, a parent must be able to clearly explain why the current order no longer meets their child’s needs. Lisa and Leigh Taylor say there are two questions parents who are thinking of changing their custody orders should consider:
Does the current child custody order still work to benefit our children’s best interests?
“Meaning, does the current schedule and specifications in the custody order best meet your children’s emotional, educational, medical, and even scheduling needs? If not, why not? Parents should be ready with a detailed explanation and examples,” says Leigh Taylor.
Instances may include one parent needing to move for a job opportunity, so an arrangement of alternating weeks between parents would no longer be feasible. A child who is struggling in school may need to attend a different school with a new schedule, or develop medical issues that require consideration. Or it may be something as simple as adjusting a visitation schedule that worked perfectly for an elementary-aged child to one that suits the needs of a teenager with multiple extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, there are also situations that put a child at risk – drug use or neglect, for example. For any modification to take place, you will need documentation that shows the change in circumstances and be able to clearly explain why the modification will benefit your children.
As a parent, what solution do I think will best serve my children?
A highly effective custody order will include creative solutions customized for your family’s unique needs, versus a “one size fits all” approach. This is often where an experienced family law attorney is essential, says Lisa. “It is imperative that you find someone who will take the time to really listen to your thoughts and carefully draft an individualized parenting plan to propose either in settlement negotiations or to offer the court at a hearing,” she explains.
An attorney experienced in family law can also give insight and perspective – two of the most critical gifts you’ll need as you go through any family law issue, adds Leigh Taylor. While it is tempting, and only human, to see the situation solely from your own point of view, an attorney can help you see things outside of your own perspective. Plus, your attorney will have insight into the legal ramifications that you lack, but which are critical to presenting a clear, cohesive case to the court.
“Look for an attorney that listens compassionately to get a clear picture of your children’s individual needs and your specific situation, but who is also honest enough to help you to see the big picture of your situation,” Leigh Taylor says. “This perspective, combined with a clear understanding of your overall strategy early on can greatly reduce the stress of the process overall.”
It is very important to keep in mind that even young children pick up on stress and any age child may be fearful of change. Communication is key to keeping your child happy and comfortable during the process. They need to be reassured that while their lives may change, a new arrangement does not mean instability and that no matter what disputes parents have, they both still love and care for their children.
To keep children on an even keel, an empathetic counselor can offer a safe haven for children to express their feelings and gain emotional coping tools. A good family therapist may also provide invaluable guidance to parents by helping them see the situation from the child’s perspective. “The majority of the time, parents do not intend to hurt their child or be malicious to one another, but they don’t always realize or understand how their children perceive adult actions,” says Lisa.
It may be difficult to maintain a cordial relationship with your ex-spouse, especially if you are the one initiating the change, but it is not impossible. While fighting for your child’s best interests can be emotional, it is important for you not to “bad mouth” your ex-spouse to your child or to say anything directly to your ex that you would not say in front of your child. If you are angered by something said to you, try to take a one- or two-hour break before responding. Sometimes even a shorter pause can help you calm down and produce a more reasonable response.
If an ex-spouse truly is trying to provoke you with triggering comments, Leigh Taylor says she recommends not taking the bait: “Ignoring the bait unravels someone fishing for a fight. Meanwhile, you can live in peace with the knowledge that you have done all you could to maintain that important relationship. Repeating the process every time you are triggered usually allows the other, potentially angry person to either cool off and become reasonable, or get tired of trying to start an argument with you. Either result is a win.”
At the end of the day, take advice from those ubiquitous t-shirts to “Keep Calm & Carry On.” “It may mean taking the high road more than you would like, but those that do take the high road always fare a lot better than those that take the low road,” says Lisa.
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This article is sponsored by Thomas, White & Gill. All photography by Erin Mosher Studios.